The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
Otz Chaim

The cabalistic Tree of Life is what happens when medieval Judaism meets neo-Platonism. It is supposed to be a diagram of the divine act of creation, but also of the soul, of the archetypal human Adam Kadmon, and of the univerese. It is used as a sort of Jewish mandala, a hook to hang religious meditations on.

Almost all the following is my own interprettion of stuff on the web written by one Colin Low, at
so I probably betray massive ignorance.

The basic parts of the Tree are the ten sephiroth, which are phases of the creative act, or faculties of the soul, or a succession of creative energies emanating from God—take your pick. I’ve been given “book,” “sphere,” “number,” and “sapphire” as possible origins for the word sephira, plural sephiroth. Each sephira has a whole library of symbols associated with it: a color, a substance, a planet, an angel, a choir of angels, a name of God, a Biblical figure, a part of the body, etc..

The ten sephiroth are, in order, from the top of the Tree to the bottom:

1. Keter, “Crown”

The point where the Tree touches the divine. It’s so mystical, there’s little to be said about it. Metaphysiclly, I suppose it is the very start of the creative act. “In the beginning, God made.”

Psychologically, I suppose it is the soul’s connection to God, actual or potential.

2. Chokhma, “Wisdom”
3. Binah, “Understanding”

These are a married couple, symbolically, masculine and feminine principles respectively, father and mother of all the lower sephiroth, especially Tiphereth. Metaphysically, Chokhma is the “possibility of force” and Binah is the “possibility of form,” to quote Low. Note that they are not force and form, but only the possibilities. I think of them in terms of the spirit of God moving over the face of the deep—stirring the waters and brooding over the possibilities, so to speak. Chokhma is the spirit and Binah is the deep.

Psychologically, I think that Chokhma is the innermost, nearly featureless, center of awareness and volition, the noumenal self, while Binah is the mind as an interior environment, the screen that the inner monitor watches, the phenomenal self. My sources say that Chokhma teaches and Binah receives the teaching.

4. Chesed, “Grace”
5. Din, “Judgment”

Another symbolic married couple. I think that, metaphysically, Chesed is Force as it puts forth or sponsors or energizes various forms, while Din “edits” these, passing judgment, thrashing out what is possible and practical and desirable. Din is also called Gevurah, “Strength.”

Psychologically, they are, perhaps, mental energy, libido (Chesed) and subconscious archetypes or complexes that cope with, modify, re-direct the libido (Din).

6. Tiphereth, “Beauty”

A point of integration of all this dialectical (and possibly contentious) activity. If any one sephira represents Adam Kadmon all by itself, it’s this one, symbolizing a king, crowned by Keter, descended from Chokhma and Binah as father and mother, with the other surrounding sephiroth as his ministers.

Psychologically, it’s a highly mystical state, like Keter. I would hazard that, while Keter is a transcendent mystical state, apprehending the Absolute all by Itself, Tiphereth is an immanent mystical state, seeing the Absolute in created things, seeing created things under the aspect of eternity.

My own private alternative psychological interpretation of 4, 5, and 6 is a the mental faculties for conscience (Chesed), reason (Din), and esthetic taste (Tiphereth), which allow us to apprehend the basic values of virtue, truth, and beauty. These three sephiroth are sometimes called the “Moral Triad,” and would then be the most abstract objects contemplated by the machinery of consciousness described by 1, 2, and 3, called the “Spiritual Triad.”

7. Netzach, “Eternity”
8. Hod, “Glory”

Metaphysically, force and form ready to be combined. Psychologically, basic individual desires and the mental machinery (habits, training) to enable them.

9. Yesod, “Foundation”

This is where force and form are combined, under the rule of beauty, to produce manifestation. But this is not manifestation itself; this is not the phenomena, but the thing that immediately produces the phenomena. Metaphysically, this is what science is perpetually trying to glimpse; if all the world’s a stage, this is back stage.

Psychologically, I suppose it must be the uppermost layers of the subconscious.

10. Malkoth, “Kingdom”

Also called Shekinah, “Dwelling,” the bride of Yesod or of Tiphereth. The phenomenal world, symbolized as both the kingdom and the bride of the royal Adam Kadmon. Psychologically, everyday consciousness.

There are 22 lines connecting the sephiroth, running top to bottom and right to left. (These lines are, of course, labeled alphabetically with Hebrew letters.) These lines show which sephiroth immediately influence which. Lower sephiroth emanate from higher ones.

Cabalists then play games with the Tree in various ways. For a start just as the Twelve Tribes could be numbered at 13 or 14, there are some other items in and about the Tree:

The Qlippoth

St. Augustine said that evil had no independent reality,but was only broken, bent goodness. Kabbalah endorses this view. The flawed, deficient versions of the sephiroth are the qlippoth, the "husks," the outer rinds of the sepphiroth, and collectively the constitute the Sitra Achra, the “other side.”

  1. Thaumiel, “Twins of God,” division, warring duality, qlippah of Keter
  2. Ghagiel, “Hindrance,” the stifling of creation, qlippah of Chokhmah
  3. Sathariel, “Concealment of God,” qlippah of Binah
  4. Gha’agsheblah, “Breakers,” qlippah of Chesed
  5. Golachab, “Incinerators,” qlippah of Gevurah
  6. Thagirion, “Quarreling,” qlippah of Tiphereth
  7. A’arab Zaraq, “Scattering Ravens,” qlippah of Netzach
  8. Samael, “Venom of God,” qlippah of Hod
  9. Gamaliel, “Camel of God” (?), qlippah of Yesod
  10. Nahemoth, “Pleasures,” seduction, qlippah of Malkoth

The Pillars

The Tree is organized into three pillars:

The Triads

The Tree is also organized into triads, with Malkoth left over at the bottom. The three triads are termed Spiritual (top, containing Keter, Chokhmah, and Binah), Moral (middle, containing Chesed, Gevurah, and Tiphereth), and Physical (bottom, containing Hod, Netzach, and Yesod).

The Four Worlds and the Four Souls

The Tree is also organized into four overlapping “worlds,” which I guess are the mundane world and three layers of Heaven. Humans have four “souls” or parts to their souls, one for each world. The worlds are:

Atziloth, “Nearness”

The heavenly court, the thing seen in the visions of Ezekiel and John, the immediate presence of God. It contains the top three sephiroth (and also Ain Soph and Da’ath). The soul associated with this is the yechidah, “uniqueness,” I suppose one’s fundamental identity.

Briah, “Creation” in ex nihilo, the highest “administrative” level of Heaven, I guess. It contains the top six sephiroth (and also Da’ath, but not Ain Soph). The soul associated with this is the neshamah, “breath,” the mystical side of the personality, I think, and, according to Cabalists, the aspect that goes to Heaven at death.

Yetzirah, “Formation”

The lower layer of Heaven, containing sephiroth 4 through 9 (and Daath). The soul associated with this is ruach, “spirit,” the rational mind and, according to Cabalists, the aspect that reincarnates.

Assiah, “Manifestation”

The workaday world, physical and mental. It contains the sephiroth from Tiphereth down. The soul associated with it is nephesh, “soul” simply, the part associated with the body and senses, what a medieval gentile would call the animal and vegetable souls. It is destroyed at death according to Cabalists.

The way of viewing the Tree most directly related to the act of creation is called the lightning strike.” The creative act runs zig-zag down the tree, through the sephiroth, in numerical order, from Keter to Malkoth.

There are other ways of organizing the sephiroth—in a circle with Tiphereth at the center and all the others around it; as a series of concentric circles with Keter outermost or innermost. But the Tree is clearly the one most developed and elaborated.


Keter – the very beginning

Chokhmah – force arising

Binah – form arising

(Da’ath – knowledge)

Chesed – force works on form

Gevurah – form works on force

Tiphereth – form and force unite

Netzach – force begins to express

Hod – form begins to express

Yesod – force and form unite in expression

Malkoth – the very completion


So, do I believe it? Mm. I think it is an interesting way of cutting up the cake of reality. I don't know that I think it has priority over other cuttings, e.g. the Taoist one (I could try matching yin with the left side and yang with the right side of the Tree but... Tell you what, you do it if you like.) I think it is interesting to see an alternative to the form|matter duality that more strictly Greek philosophy uses, and to see form be feminine instead of masculine and, despite being paired with force, still having a lot of agency.

I have been, and will continue to be, perfectly happy to use the Tree as background color for my worldbuilding play. And, even if I just regard it as a system of categorization, a way to cut the cake, I will respect it, because it doesn't strike me as inherently stupid, and a lot of very serious scholars spent a lot of time on it.

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